"One of the things that makes Wittgenstein a real artist to me is that he realized that no conclusion could be more horrible that solipsism." David Foster Wallace
The wildly ambitious American writer, David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), offers a complicated account of what it means to be human in his profound experimental novel, Infinite Jest. It reads like a drug but it offers an ethic that is more mind-blowing than any substance. Humanity is not just about paying attention to our own pain, but sitting with someone else in theirs.
“That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness." David Foster Wallace
Who’s there? The famous words Shakespeare pens at the beginning of Hamlet are answered 387 short years later in the first two words of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: I am.
Alas, the answer is not yet settled, which is why we continue to search art to learn more about the human condition. Identity is constructed, but it might make more sense to say it is under construction, embracing change and evolution as an individual evolves and grows in community. We continue searching, like Alice in Wonderland, for the answer to the ever-perplexing question: “who in the world am I?”
“Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
In time we learn, just like Alice, that identity is constructed through a kaleidoscope of perspectives and social influences. Our communities and families weave together the fabric of who we are – not as individuals but as a community. This is not to say that one person’s reality is relative to the next, but that we each work to develop our reality by considering layer upon layer of sensory experience. This understanding echoes Kenneth Burke’s thoughts in The Grammar of Motives:
"It is customary to think that objective reality is dissolved by such relativity of terms as we get through the shifting of perspectives (the perception of one character in terms of many diverse characters). But on the contrary, it is by the approach through a variety of perspectives that we establish a character's reality. If we are in doubt as to what an object is, for instance, we deliberately try to consider it in as many different terms as its nature permits: lifting, smelling, tasting, tapping, holding in different lights, subjecting to different pressures, dividing, matching, contrasting, etc." Kenneth Burke
Identity is neither private nor essential, but constructed through a variety of discourses, a lesson we learn from several characters – both dead and alive – in Infinite Jest. Pain is a monster that goes by many names: anguish, despair, and torment being just a few, and it haunts us when the monster takes over our ability to empathize with our fellow human. This theme emerges in David Foster Wallace’s work to reinforce the utter hell of solipsism.
WHAT IS SOLIPSISM?
Solipsism is a philosophical idea that all we can know is our own mind. As you can imagine, this idea leads to some pretty devastating conclusions about what it means to be a human being.
In the 1944 play, No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) wrote the famous line: “hell is other people.” In a pithy response to Sartre’s line, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) famously retorted, “Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself.” Novels, plays, and cinema, alike, remind us that when identity is constructed in isolation, misery follows.
David Foster Wallace, whom we know is sympathetic to Wittgenstein, echoes this famous line when he describes the way the monster expands and feeds on everything and everyone in the environment: “Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one.”
Wisdom is often associated with age, but perhaps a better tool of measurement might be pain. If we liken wisdom to the intellect, we would likely agree with Bruno Snell in The Discovery of the Mind (1954) who learns from early Greek thinkers that man has “to pass through much suffering and toil before he reaches an understanding of the intellect.”
This pursuit resonates with Don Gately, a counselor and dedicated member of Alcoholics Anonymous in the pages of Infinite Jest, who learns the intimate relationship between pain and time through the agonizing clarity of sobriety in the early moments of detox:
"Feeling the edge of every second that went by. Taking it a second at a time. Drawing the time in around him real tight. Withdrawing. Any one second: he remembered: the thought of feeling like he'd be feeling this second for 60 more of these second -- he couldn't deal. He could not fucking deal. He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down into like one second -- less: the space between two heartbeats. A breath and a second, the pause and gather between each cramp. An endless now stretching its gull-wings out on either side of his heartbeat. And he'd never before or since felt so excruciatingly alive." David Foster Wallace
It is not the mundane, empty beat of the heart or the tick-tock rhythm of the clock that produces wisdom. It is pain and suffering that makes us more human. We bleed to know we are alive, but when you reach that level of pain, it’s as though you roll around on a thousand tiny needles, each tearing open a wound. This is why Roland Barthes’ concept of the punctum is a kind of photographing of the unconscious. You can see the trauma captured in the image, an idea William S. Burroughs intuits in the pages of Nova Express: “image is pain.”
What David Foster Wallace shows through his dense prose and fractured narrative is that pain is not about you. What pulls us through those piercing moments is one another. The result is empathy — we enter into a neighborhood, each person conspiring to live a full life.
What enables us to see the pain of others and live in a rich community is our muse. While the muse remains a figure of inspiration, we must not forfeit the mythical origin. The Greek muses were guardians of memory, but when we sacrifice these precious guardians on the alter of entertainment — when we pursue amusement, we choose to forget the pain through drugs or entertainment or stuff, we forfeit our humanity – we might as well stay in Neverland, unwilling to grow up and refusing to become fully alive.
“What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human [...] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.” David Foster Wallace
Our pursuit of being really human is not about becoming a better self, but recognizing the collective nature of ourselves. This is what Martin Heidegger calls mitsein in Being in Time: “The world of Dasein is a with-world [Mitwelt]. Being-in is being-with [Mitsein] others.” It’s like John Donne taught us, “no man is an island.” If we go into the pain, we will come out of it with others. If we mask it, we will continue revolving on our existential carousel, ever-jesting, perhaps for infinity.